Farewell, ‘Touchdown Jesus’

It may seem like a long time ago, but when George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004, there was sense that evangelical Christianity had become a political and cultural force that was reshaping the country.

Evangelicals, you may remember, were credited with keeping Bush in office, despite the poor start to the war in Iraq.

I talked to an evangelical pastor in Putnam County who told me that evangelical culture out there in the Heartland was a mysterious and potent force, impossible for a New Yorker to understand or relate to.

So I spent a week in West Chester, Ohio, a suburb of Cincinnati, hanging out at four evangelical churches and asking dozens — hundreds? — of evangelicals what politically correct New Yawkers might want to know about them.

One of the churches I visited was Solid Rock Church, a large, vibrant, ministry-rich and highly diverse Pentecostal church in Monroe, Ohio. The place was regionally famous because a few months before, it had commissioned an artist to build a 62-foot-tall statue of Jesus in front of the church.

The statue, built right beside I-75, was quite controversial.

It showed Jesus from the waist up, rising out of the ground, with his arms outstretched toward the heavens.

It was officially called “King of Kings.” But people in the region referred to it as “Touchdown Jesus.”

Some considered it garish. In fact, the pastor of another evangelical church I visited cringed when I brought it up. He was afraid that reporters like me would be drawn to the area because of the statue and would make fun of Christians as a result (I don’t believe I did so).

I can tell you this: When driving along I-75 at night, the statue could give you a chill.

That’s me in front of the statue. From what I remember, there was a cold, December wind blowing right into my face.

When my article ran in the paper, everyone asked me about the statue. Why did they build it? What did it look like up close? What did the neighbors say?

I mention this now because, last night, “King of Kings” burned. To a crisp.

Apparently, the statue, made of fiber glass and foam, was struck by lightning during a storm. The entire thing went up in flames.

As pictures from the Cincinnati Enquirer show, all that’s left is some kind of wire frame. An accompanying video shows clumps of charred statue scattered across the grounds. An adjacent amphitheater was also damaged.

According the paper’s website: “Authorities on Tuesday were urging motorists to resist the temptation to stop on Interstate 75 and snap photos, fearing that drivers pulling on and off the berm could cause crashes…The Ohio State Highway Patrol is issuing warnings to those who stop — and will soon start writing citations, a dispatcher for the patrol’s Lebanon post said.”

I’m sure that the people of West Chester, Ohio, are going to need some time to get used to the great statue not being there. You also have to figure that some jokes are being told today about the statue’s fate and that some may even find meaning of some sort in its demise.

The members of Solid Rock Church were real nice to me. I attended a meeting about their intense prison ministry and visited their elegant home for young, single mothers.

So I can’t help feeling kind of sad.

The Dayton Daily News reports that Solid Rock has gotten calls of support from around the world and that work will begin this summer to rebuild the statue.

Fire photo by Michael Ryan

Gary Stern

Gary Stern covered education in the Lower Hudson Valley for several years during the early 1990s. Now's he back on the beat. He believes that schools are one of the main reasons that people live around here and that educational issues -- from curriculum to financing -- are among the most challenging things that journalists can write about. He continues to be amazed by the complexity of educational jargon. Gary got his B.A. at SUNY Buffalo and his M.A. from the University of Missouri Journalism School (where his master's thesis was about the best ways to cover education). He lives in White Plains with his wife and two sons, who attend public schools.